By Brandi Underwood
“We never saw a window. They must have had them painted black,” said 91-year-old Beckley native Rosalee Sutyak.
She sat in a wooden rocking chair as she reminisced on the days of the early 1940s when she left her jewelry and handbag on her dresser before leaving to catch the bus to work.
Rosalee was 22 years old when she worked at a steel plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., during the World War II efforts that called for women to swap their skirts for slacks in order to man machinery. These women were known as “Rosies,” or Rosie the Riveters, and without them, some question whether the U.S. and the Allied Forces really would have won the war.
“We couldn’t carry anything in or out,” she said. “They would even check our picture each day before we went in.”
Sutyak worked at the Willow Run Bomber Plant, which at the time was the largest factory in the world, switching from producing Ford automobiles to B-24 Liberator bombers at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt. Nearly 9,000 attack aircraft were made at Willow Run during World War II.
Women discovered a new sense of empowerment during WWII. As the majority of men were called to serve in the war effort, the women stepped up, proving themselves completely capable of performing work that only men had done up until that time.
Sutyak worked as a “bucker,” the counterpart to a riveter. While riveters used a gun to shoot rivets to fasten sheet metal together from the outside, their bucker counterpart would be on the receiving end, inside the plane wing, using an instrument called a bucking bar to smooth out the rivets.
“I guess they put me inside of there because I was skinny,” Sutyak said. “And let me tell you one thing, it was hot.”
Once inside the wing, Sutyak pulled a light behind her to be able to see, and the riveter and bucker could only communicate through knocking.
“When I got to where I was going I would tap once, then I would tap twice when I was ready to do it,” she said.
“I made 68 cents an hour, and that was big money at the time,” she said.
In 1942, with $35 in her pocket, then 21-year-old Mozelle Brown, of Summersville, boarded a bus to Akron, Ohio, to live with extended family and pay her dues as a Rosie.
Brown is now 93, but she said that she still remembers those days like they were just yesterday. She still has the sheet metal manual she was given during her riveter training.
“We had to learn how to cut it, the angles and the sizes of the rivets,” she said.
“It was a time that we all made sacrifices,” Brown said. “It was desperate because they had to have the men. Roosevelt said, ‘You ladies get your aprons off and get out and get to work. This is everybody’s war, every man, woman and child.’”
Brown remembers having to have stamps to be able to get things that were rationed, like sugar, coffee and gasoline.
“Leather had to go for combat boots,” she said. “All silk had to go to parachutes for the troopers, so you couldn’t get silk hose.”
During the war, some men who were left on the homefront served as Rosie recruiters for plants.
“At that time, of course I went on my own, but they were coming through and recruiting women,” Brown said. “They assured them a place to stay and a job. They would take them either to Baltimore, Michigan, Akron or somewhere to a different plant.”
“West Virginia and Kentucky women were recruited the most,” Sutyak said. “They knew we were hard workers.”
While they were known to be hard workers, stereotypes associated with the state were common themes of banter.
“They teased West Virginia people,” Brown said. “They would say, ‘They brought in another West Virginian; we’re going to have another shoeless one.’”
Della Caldwell, 95, of Oak Hill, worked at the U.S. Naval Ordnance Plant, now known as the Ordnance Center, in Charleston during WWII.
Caldwell said the plant used steel from Carnegie-Illinois Steel Co., and when wartime materials were completed they were transported back up to Pittsburgh on the railroad. The plant produced rockets, torpedo flasks and more than 130,000 gun barrels for WWII battleships, employing 7,400 workers by 1944, with an equal ratio of men and women.
Caldwell, married with children at the time, moved from the tiny coal town of Page to the state capital with her family at the request of her uncle, who worked as a recruiter for the plant.
“There was a gang of people from Page that worked for Carnegie Steel,” Caldwell said. “I may have been one of the first women taken down there. It was right at the beginning of the war.”
“I was what they called a runner. I went around to the machinery and I was responsible for men having another job to start on after they came off of their last one,” she said.
One day, when Caldwell was making her rounds to inquire of the men when their projects would be finished, a man, presumably not accustomed to working side-by-side with women, grabbed her leg.
“I smacked his face and left a blister,” Caldwell said. “He was shocked to death. He didn’t know what to think.”
Caldwell and her husband typically didn’t work the same shift, but on this particular day they were both on the clock.
“He runs across my husband and my husband said, ‘Man, what’s wrong with your face?’ He goes, ‘Boy, you see that girl in that yellow outfit? She smacked my face.’ My husband said, ‘That happens to be my wife,’” Caldwell said, amused.
“It didn’t amount to anything, but I don’t think he tried it again,” she said, laughing.
Caldwell said that she considers her Rosie days to be fond memories, and that she didn’t realize the importance of her work until much later.
Now, more than 70 years later, the surviving Rosies are well into their late 80s and 90s, and although they didn’t realize the impact they had at the time, they are now fully aware that their hard labor paid off.
“We were a part of that, of the war coming to an end,” Caldwell said.
Thank you to all of the beautiful West Virginia Rosies, here and gone.